Lot 8
  • 8

Sefer Refu'os Usegulos (Book of Remedies and Incantations), [Italy: 15th century]

15,000 - 20,000 USD
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • printed book
29 folios (7 1/2 x 5 1/2 in.; 190 x 140 mm). Written in Old Yiddish (Judeo-German) dialect in brown ink on 15th century Venetian paper in an Italianate Ashkenazic semicursive Hebrew script. Watermark: a five petalled flower, without stem, with a small circle in its center, best visible in fol. 2, cf. Briquet no. 6372 (Milano, 1473). Several leaves strengthened at gutter. Lightly browned; some marginal staining. Modern paper wrapper. Housed in modern buckram trifold slipcase and red morocco clamshell case.

Catalogue Note

A rare Old-Yiddish manuscript collection of Jewish folk remedies, charms and incantations

The major part of the present text is written in Old Yiddish, with scattered admixtures of Hebrew, as well as distinctive words or phrases in Judeo-Italian. The Yiddish dialect found here is markedly different from other Old Yiddish printed or manuscript texts in its vocabulary, grammar and especially its orthography. The author's Yiddish is also influenced by the vernacular Italian and he frequently uses Italian names of plants and herbal remedies, e.g. finocchio (fennel); trementina (turpentine) etc.

The manuscript is written in the distinctive Ashkenazic semicursive script common to Italian Jewry in the fifteenth century and can be dated more specifically to the third quarter of the fifteenth century, by comparing the watermarked paper with known dated examples from the same period (cf. Briquet no. 6372 [Milan: 1473]). The 29 leaves comprising the manuscript were originally part of a larger volume, no longer extant, that comprised more than 300 leaves (based on the original foliation in Hebrew letters.) 

A substantial part of the present collection includes remedies for ophthalmological treatments, for healing injuries and diseases, stopping of bleeding,  and pain reduction. More interesting, however, are the peculiar and unique magical practices found in this manuscript, some of which are completely unknown from other sources. One interesting incantation invokes an angel, to reveal the identity of one’s future spouse. Another is supposed to allow the reciter to withstand torture, a vivid illustration of contemporary reality during the late medieval and early modern periods. Perhaps the strangest entry in the collection is a spell which was believed to effect the release of an incarcerated prisoner. This incantation was until now, known only from an uncertain reading in a Cairo Genizah fragment of the ancient Sefer ha-Razim, but is now verified by our manuscript.  It allows for a startling departure from the boundaries of normative Jewish religion, by including an invocation of Christ in the magic formula, though such an invocation was only to be used only in extremis.

This important compilation provides valuable insights into the folk-beliefs of Ashkenazic Jews as well as serving as an exceedingly rare contemporary witness to the spoken and written dialect of Yiddish actually used in the 15th century among the Ashkenazic Jews of the Italian Peninsula.

Sotheby's is grateful to Dr. Shlomo Zucker for providing information which aided in the cataloging of this lot. Dr. Zucker's complete report is available upon request.